As consumers, we rely on labels to quickly and accurately tell us what's in a product.
Regular and diet sodas, for example, are easily identifiable with their packaging and labeling. For the busy shopper, you know that with regular soda you're getting sugar or high-fructose corn syrup; with diet soda you're getting aspartame or sucralose or some other artificial sweetener.
But now two dairy industry trade groups want to make it less apparent whether artificial ingredients have been added to your regular or flavored milk.
In 2009, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Milk Producers Federation petitioned to use a non-nutritive sweetener in milk without stating its presence on the label. In late February, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration - which is in charge of ensuring the safety of what's added to food and regulating how food is processed, packaged and labeled -published the petition and is now holding a comment period on it.
The two dairy industry groups requested the FDA "amend the standard of identity for milk" and 17 other dairy products - such as whipping cream, sour cream and yogurt - "to provide for the use of any safe and suitable sweetener as an optional ingredient."
In other words, nowhere on the label of the milk carton will it say "reduce calorie" or "reduce sugar" or words that would let you know they've been artificially sweetened. So you might grab a jug of regular milk only later to realize it tastes sweet or your chocolate milk tastes differently. Then when you examine the ingredients you see that it has been artificially sweetened. (At that time let's hope that you're not allergic to such artificial additives.)
The dairy groups maintain the change will promote milk consumption, help reduce obesity and improve nutrition in schools where children are more likely to drink flavored, sweetened milk. They believe this "diet milk" will be better than regular milk for children and adults.
This idea is wrong on many counts. Let's put aside the safety of artificial sweeteners. Promoting consumption of milk with an artificial sweetener without putting that on the label distorts reality, plus we question the effectiveness of serving kids (or adults) artificially sweetened drinks in a fight against obesity.
As people consumed less milk, they drank soda. Now they're soda intake is dropping as their water use is increasing. In other words, they're opting for water instead of a sweetened drink. So adding a fake sweetener seems to be taking a step backward.
But our chief objection is that the content of the milk would not be accurately reflected on the milk label. It is bad enough that the FDA allows "nutritive sweeteners," such as sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, without labeling, but the agency should not compound the problem by letting this petition go through.
If the dairy industry believes in artificially sweetening milk, then it should believe in labeling its products as such. If the products don't sell under that scrutiny, then that's the will of the marketplace.
Our food labels should be accurate. Misleading by omission is not the way to go.
On the Net
To see the petition online, go to https://federalregister.gov/a/2013-03835.